Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The esthetic structure of the sentence.(discussion on sentence formation and grammar).

Decades ago, when I was in the Grades, the teacher of composition would occasionally go to the blackboard and write there a sentence of some appropriately simple kind for her students to worry like cats with their prey--for example, "The man at the door was an encyclopedia salesman" though, I suspect, my instructor chose a more succinctly spelled commodity. During the Great Depression such a neat but shabby-suited person would ring the bell oftener than anyone cared to remember. Then teacher would draw lines that tied various parts of her sentence together, 'at the door' descending like a staircase from its noun. This moment made me happy. I was perhaps the only student in the class who relished diagramming; who could while away a happy hour picturing predicates docking at the ports of their subjects like ships. Levels one through six were called Grammar Schools then, attesting to the importance once placed upon the subject.

The idea of the sentence, I saw from these chalky demonstrations, was the disappearance of the words that comprised it into one compounded notion, namely whatever was designated by a large often smeared letter S on the board. 'The' had scarcely slipped without any fuss into 'man' when 'at the door' folded up into the slightly fattened S on the slate as if swallowed by its shape. Meanwhile, 'encyclopedia' was safely inside 'salesman" and resting comfortably. The sentence offered no guarantee that the union of 'doorsman" and 'salesman" would ever be relevant for any other stoop. Its allegation was quite indefinite about all else except this one past-tense declaration.

Yet its time frame did determine certain circumstances. Had the verb (here, one weak as water) been in the present, I could have easily imagined a comfortable use: "Mabel, I think the man at the door is an encyclopedia salesman." But our sample sentence is not in an immediately functional mode, but rather in one of recollection and depiction. (Actually, even this is a pretension because the sentence isn't being used, but merely being mentioned.) Moreover, its meaning is not captured by any easy refiguring such as "An encyclopedia salesman was at the door" because that blunt version fails to highlight the statement's sense of recognition: "O lord, the man at the door ..." et cetera. There is absolutely no point in saying "The man at the door" if you already know who he is. And if you know who he is, you probably won't utter an entire sentence, just "uh oh, an encyclopedia salesman," in a warning whisper Incidentally, is that warning a fragment or can we treat it as a sentence with copious elisions?

The teacher, to my mystification, did not give word order much attention, and she seemed to think that some sentences could be flipped like pancakes. She regarded with scornful indifference my claim that the news, "David slew Goliath,' was seriously not the same as "Goliath was slain by David," but that each registered joy or woe depending on whose side you were on. Grammarians were on the side of the parts of speech Wherever it might find itself, an adverb was surely an adverb, the '-ly' a brand as on the flank of a steer, and in just that way her classifications went through the words of the alphabet, 'aardvark' to 'Zion; declaring them to be articles or prepositions, nouns or verbs. If I wanted to insist on a difference between the two Davids-versus-Goliaths, beyond a simple change of voice, fine; but my opinion would not be a grammatical one. The syntax of the sentence--its form--was the issue, although no one said "syntax" back then.

Thus I learned that grammar was concerned with only one sort of structure that a sentence had to have to earn a period Its aim was always clarity of communication. Nothing should leak out of, or fall idly into, the perfect sentence It must not forget its way and wander in the wilderness Later, after the steam engine's invention, we might say: "lose its train of thought" In 1783, when Hugh Blair composed his lecture on the "Structure of Sentences," he listed the desirable properties as "1. Clearness and Precision. 2. Unity 3. Strength. 4. Harmony." (1) Yet we do not always share those goals when we speak or write, for we often desire to be devious, to mislead, conceal, confuse or confound our audience; perhaps to persuade them to vote as we wish or to purchase our faulty vacuum cleaner or grant us a reputation for profundity. Much later, I came to believe that Hegel must have thought reality was a sentence because everything that occurred in the world turned out to be a predicate of the Absolute, and disappeared into it the way the steps to the front door did, or the standing man would, if he left the stoop, having been invited in to wait the end of the sentence, when he'd get to put, under someone else's care, the book of cut-rate erudition he had so long borne beneath his arm, weariness from previous refusals showing in his face, a weariness not unlike the weariness this sentence gives its listeners, and will its readers, too.

Hegel, of course, would not be the first to look at the world through the methods of its depiction. The Pythagoreans may have been originals at that. Aristotle's categories serve him as the grammar of Being, and prove amazingly useful for an error of such magnitude. A sentence, the Philosopher says, is a form of speech that has a beginning and an end within itself, and is of a length that can be readily grasped--two conditions that resemble those required of a tragedy: beginning, middle, end, and the unities of time and place that are imposed upon the action. Of course, to utter a rule is half on the way to breaking it. For instance, Laurence Sterne, who loved to cause metaphysical alarm in his readers, damaged the rule for time with this rip in the fabric of reality: "A cow broke in tomorrow morning to my Uncle Toby's fortifications" And E. E. Cummings, to continue along this line, begins a poem "anyone lived in a pretty how town / with up so floating many bells down." Grammarians are not taught to cope with this sort of thing. How do you diagram the "cow town" that manages to live in the shadow of "how town" or set down the up so floating many bells? You don't, I'm sure Miss Duck (for that was her name) would say. The incorrect does not deserve the honor of a design.

Philosophers can often be classified in terms of their favorite parts of speech: there are those who believe that nouns designate the only reliable aspects of being; others, of a contrary view, who see those nouns as simply unkempt nests of qualities; and all are familiar with the Heraclitean people who embrace verbs as if you could make love to water while entirely on land. I have personally always preferred prepositions, particularly 'of,' and especially, among its many meanings, those of possession and being possessed, of belonging and exclusion.

In that classroom I also encountered what was apparently a mind like mine: one that had to picture relations in some symbolic space if it hoped to understand them. Later, Venn diagrams would provide visible evidence for the soundness of the syllogism. The syllogism required a rewriting of any sentences offered to it so that they would fit neatly into a system that would facilitate the diagramming of its premises by means of overlapping hoops. Like a ticket machine, this logic did not accept sentences until they had been pressed flat, formed into propositions, and fed carefully through the appropriate slot. "David is the slayer of Goliath." According to some readers, of which I am one, this formula--S is P, with its quantifier and simplified copula--encouraged the concepts of Substance and Accident and gave them considerable legitimacy. The syllogism itself, apart from the fact that anything it could handle had to be uninteresting, encouraged a conflation of premises and their valid conclusion with the actions of causes and effects, supposing that between them there had to be a necessary connection simply because the propositions that expressed causality were that firmly linked.


It has even been said that the structure of a true proposition mirrors the structure of its fact, but this is true only in fiction where there are no other facts than those created by the prose, and no other relations either.

At a social function, the nametags may be folded at your plate or they may be pinned to your dress at the door. If properly posted Sir Gregory will remain the MP for Gladhampshire wherever he stands and as his nametag identifies him; otherwise that must be Lady Disgrace seated at the left hand of the host, as her place-mark says, since that is where a person of such rank and compliant reputation is always to be found. The English sentence creates a predelineated space, like a table set for lunch, while a Latin one is satisfied that everybody knows their station and their duties wherever they may be positioned. In an English sentence, as Blair remarks, "the words or members most nearly related, should be placed in the Sentences, as near to each other as possible." Placing relations in such proximity with one another is not wise social advice.

When word ordering is insufficient for the organizing task at hand, one can fold the sentence back upon itself as line breaks do in verse, or by creating interior rhymes, and symmetrical structures bring it to heel; but now closeness must be redefined in terms of each word's placement anywhere on the page or its resemblance to others when read and heard in the head.

The favored name, in Blair's time, for the effect of a word on its neighbor, was 'qualify" whereas today it is 'modify.' The adverb, by its presence, does something to the meaning of a verb, that the verb, by itself, is incapable of doing. The general assumption has been that though these qualifiers are subordinate to their objects, and must be considered to be fastened to them in some life-giving way (weariness cannot exist on its own), it is their presence alone that effects the change. That is to say, if the salesman is standing wearily at your front door, weariness will be like a car's paint job, and do its work on the poor fellow's posture without suffering, itself, any modification. This is, I think, a major mistake. If, out of all the kinds of standing, the adverb is pointing only to the weary ones, 'standing" in its turn, is picking out only those elements of posture that are appropriate, and certainly not all the ones the sentence--"'Wanna buy a book, ma'am" the salesman said wearily"--is selecting; or, even more obviously, "The geese lit upon the pond where they floated wearily about like lilies made of feathers."

Many adverbs and some adjectives have private as well as public sides. Here, only the posture of the salesman has been described as weary, so the reader must first go to the qualities one associates with the corresponding behavior of the body, and only then, if the inference is deemed safe, to the appropriate state of feeling, since a person may feign weariness, or hide it if he wishes to make a sale.

To dwell at this point a moment longer like those geese who now are resting on the palest patch of water: if it is a part of the syntax of the sentence that any adjective in it modify or qualify a noun, how it does so will not only depend upon the nature of the noun but also on the connections that the adjective has made with other portions of the text, provided, of course, there are such companions. It has been suggested that our salesman was shabby-suited, and given the general circumstances we might reasonably suppose that neatness was nevertheless likely. The salesman is poor but he is trying to make a good impression. Still, we can't be sure. If Mr. Micawber is the guy ringing the bell, we do know that he will be dressed as well as Mrs. Micawber can manage. So if this sentence were in Copperfield, the way the adjective modified its noun would be precisely determined: shabby but not as one who is homeless, rather as one who is poor but proud--even pompous. Sometimes the text will furnish details and particulars: "The frayed edges of his coat sleeves had been sewn shut so that the ravelings could no longer embarrass." At other times it may indicate that 'shabby' alone is quite enough. The reader must read carefully and obey. Such links, such severances, are everywhere inevitable in literary work, and, I should say, are formal properties of the sentence with the consequence that the sentence cannot be surgically lifted from its context like a liver to be transplanted. I call these possibilities contextual tentacles because, though they reach out, they do not always grasp.

The placement of the man's shabbiness is as important as the suit's location--worn rather than still hung in a closet or flung over a chair. To say "the suit was shabby" is to grant 'shabby' its full powers as an adjective and to place special emphasis on the suit's condition (the 'suit' goes to seek 'shabby'), whereas if it is allowed to cozy up and be 'shabby-suited' it will take on substantive, or noun-like qualities. Then the sentence is on its way to omitting the suit--to say "shabby man" and be done with it. In addition, "The man at the door was a shabby encyclopedia salesman" casts aspersions on the poor soul's selling techniques, and 'shabby's' closeness to 'encyclopedia' suggests a similarly low opinion of his merchandise. I shall stick with "shabby-suited" Because it fits him.


Let our instructor in these matters be Samuel Beckett who understands the general problem of word order and selection as well as anyone who cares. In his early novel, Watt, Beckett reckons with the problem.

With regard to the so important matter of Mr Knott's physical
appearance, Watt had unfortunately little or nothing to say. For
one day Mr Knott would be tall, fat, pale and dark, and the next
thin, small, flushed and fair, and the next sturdy, middlesized,
yellow and ginger, and the next small, fat, pale and fair, and the
next middlesized, flushed, thin and ginger, and the next tall,
yellow, dark and sturdy, and the next fat, middlesized, ginger and
pale, and the next tall, thin, dark and flushed, the next small,
fair, sturdy and yellow ... [and thus the permutations continue for
a full two pages until, not even out of breath, we reach] ... and
the next small, fair, sturdy and pale, or so it seemed to Watt, to
mention only the figure, stature, skin and hair. (2)
To dwell on this point still a moment longer like a guest who will not say "good night": sentences must be understood to contain all sorts of unused syntactical space; places that could be filled with more words, but, in any specific instance, aren't. Instead of "The man at the door was an encyclopedia salesman," we could have written "The weary shabby-suited man at the door was an Encyclopaedia Britannica salesman" Between any adjective and its noun, more can nearly always be added. Sentences are like latticework, like fences, to be left open or prudently closed, their boards wide or narrow, pointy or level, the spaces between them, ditto. "The man was a salesman" is a short sentence that is as gappy as a badly buttoned blouse. An adjective that began its duties nearly in the arms of its noun can suddenly find itself removed almost to another room. Or if in a queue, a victim of violators. "The tall gaunt shabby-suited weary looking man who suddenly appeared at my door after ringing its bell with a hand I identified as that of an old radioman because it sounded so like Morse, was, to my surprise, not an encyclopedia salesman, though I at first had taken him for that, but a Bible pusher whose stature and demeanor reminded me of my father, dead these many years, and a man of the book if there ever was one." Don't think we can't make this a novel. Words in a sentence are like stars in the heavens, close only if viewed from a distance of many light years.

Occasionally we are misled into thinking that some of these spaces have been adequately closed up. For instance, what room is left between 'at' and 'the' in the phrase 'at the front door'? Well, a lot if we cheat a little. "The man at (rest at) the front door ..." Without changing the order of the words we can begin our redesign with "The man at rest at the first step leading to the front door was, to my dismay, a dismay I conveyed to my wife in a whisper, not just an encyclopedia salesman, but the same guy I turned away yesterday when he was selling brooms." Although the grammarian, as well as the logician, will find the original sentence and pull it out with pliers, to the ordinary reading eye that original unity will have disappeared. This is called "embedding" There are two kinds. We simply place the sentence to be embedded, as it stands, in a larger whole, usually with material added fore and aft; or we segment the sentence and make intrusions all along its length.

Embedding is related to framing. Frame tales are famous: A Thousand and One Nights, The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales. At the level of the sentence it is called indirect address. "Seymour said that the man at the door was an encyclopedia salesman" At all times, the authority for statements, assertions, beliefs, and opinions, is crucial. Gossip, the very lifeblood of the novel of manners, can do its damage regardless of its reliability, but that reliability is essential if we are ever to know what Millie has actually done with her life, beside running away with that fact-flogging encyclopedia salesman. Henry James, who is fundamentally an epistemological novelist, is always concerned with who said what, why, and with what authority. He would certainly be interested to know that Miss Duck, who wrote our initial example on the board, was one of Millie's aunts, an intimate of the family, who might very well know what her niece of only thirty-five had done, running away with a lowlife like that. What Seymour said made only half a frame, a full frame might go like this: "Seymour said that the man at the door was an encyclopedia salesman, but Joseph wasn't so sure because Seymour owed Britannica a bundle and saw their emissaries hiding in his drawers."


These spaces and the relations established within them are nothing like the physical relations of things and properties in the world of reference. The weariness of the salesman inhabits his veins, his nerves, his bones; defeat and despair darken his consciousness; and his skin is as tired as his clothing. But the word 'weariness' is not weary; nor is the little verb 'was' even a bit bored because of the two spaces it has had to occupy (as 'was'--as 'wasn't') in the salesman's last sentence. In addition, there are maybe a billion more instances of 'was' and 'wasn't' in use, and an inexhaustible number waiting their chance; another billion that were forgotten as soon as spoken, a billion more written only to be erased or stricken or consumed by accidents, cruel indifference, or the elements.

My grammarian was using a prescribed notation to develop in the blackboard's representational space a picture of relationships that cannot be normally observed. Yet I doubt if she realized the creative importance of such figurations (they were essential to the development of mathematics and symbolic logic, they revolutionized music) or appreciated the human mind's desire to spacialize whatever it wishes to understand. Time is not without a strong presence, although it, too, is always given a linear presentation. For instance, if a real man were standing there at the door, shabby and weary; his eyes, his nose, his turned-down mouth, would be in simultaneous alignment, and given together to the world; but the sentence can only give these characteristics to us one item at a time like keys and lipstick taken from a purse, and the salesman's self would be parceled out in pieces that might be supposed to fit together finally in a coherent form and face like a jigsaw one might buy at the Five & Dime. For another instance, that initial 'The' must wait until 'at the door' has had a chance to fold up into 'man' before it does its work, because it is being definite about 'man-at-the-door' not 'man" by itself, just as 'at' must apply itself to 'the-door' not 'door' alone. Of course, conceptually, these relations are in instantaneous play, but the reader's eye and mind does not move quite that fast. Meanwhile, notationally, 'The' is spoken, typed, or written in a sea of space between it and its noun. 'Faint-hearted" for example, might pop in between them, or 'weary' or both or more than both: "The weary faint-hearted fat man at the door was, if I had read his look aright, a damned encyclopedia salesman.,' So now we must deal with epistemological disclaimers and heated evaluations in addition to descriptions that fly from one realm of Being to another: in and out of the public world and then in and out of the salesman's consciousness like purple martins to and from their house.

By the way, the period that puts an end to any sentence--that says a sentence is a sentence--and was at one time used to name a sentence instead of saying 'sentence'--is not an arbitrary mark, yet its presence must be justified, for any sentence whatever can be longer than it happens to be, running on like a kitchen tap. "The man at the door was an encyclopedia salesman / who stood there nervously shifting his weight from one foot to the other as if he needed to pee." A new addition, like a breezeway or a screened porch, will provide fresh entertainments. Arnold Schoenberg once advised John Cage to go back over what he was doing and see if it still worked if you added something. "See how it continues" he suggested, "see how it flows." (3) We know these things, as obvious as most noses, but we often choose not to remember them, or the noses either.

The similarity of logical form to grammatical form is generally acknowledged. However, these regulatory systems are not the same nor do they have the same aims. Grammatical structures are superficial. They want and need to be as evident as gravy spills because countless superficial people must use them, and because common speech loves vagueness and ambiguity. In an essay on the ontology of the sentence, I once gave up after listing thirteen uses for the preposition 'of" although, as a result, 'of' became my favorite among my favorites, because it is, like 'on' and 'and' and 'in" so many different words. Grammar offers no clue to which 'at' I have in 'at the door" Is it the 'at' of "at an impasse" or the 'at' of "not at all"? My favorite syllogism, however, celebrates 'in,' a real mischief-maker. There is a pain in my foot. My foot is in my shoe. There is a pain in my shoe. The man with the pain in his shoe is not at an impasse, no, not at all, but simply at the front door.

The hypothetical nature of Aristotle's seemingly categorical "All S is P" has now been unmasked by logicians and written "If x is an S then x is a P" not something obvious on first consideration. When Aristotle forced verbs to act as nouns (turning 'slew' into 'the slayer of'), he did so on behalf of ousia and the simplification of the copula, which he understood in spatial terms as if he were using contemporary eyes: namely as connecting species to genus. Nouns (and adjectives after they had been made into nouns) were like classes that contained other classes that contain yet others until classes so small and specific they had no differentiations were reached (the infima species). These were the conceptually thick terms since they told you so much more about themselves than nouns of greater scope and less density. What is common to all things may be profound but it can't be much.

Plato's Form of the Good, on the other hand, is the analytic embrace and dense compounding of every other Form, because, as the sun of the spiritual world, it not only makes each Form intelligible the way light makes material things visible, but it does so by granting them logical consequence--they flow like a fountain from it. Aristotle's Being is like Saturn who ate his children, but with such sluggish digestion they could be coughed up later, reborn just as they once were except they are now angry as hell; whereas Plato's Good (like the idea of One and the idea of One More that were once supposed to generate the whole of arithmetic) is never separate from its components but utterly made of them. For Plato the Idea of the Good is the ultimate subject. We should expect that from an Idealist. For Aristotle, however, Being is the predicate of predicates and true of every significant thing. For Aristotle, the man at the front door is no one much until he becomes shabby-suited and weary, while for Plato ... can we see past those scuffed shoes and overzealous tie? do we understand? he is Man in all his calamitous glory.

Traditionally, then, the subject of a sentence has been viewed in three quite different ways: first, as an outlined object in a coloring book which the predicate obliges by crayoning in, making the apple green or red or yellow or spotty brown and rotten if the teacher is to be displeased (color the man weary); second, as a sorting box into which the predicate tosses the subject like a button, coin, or nail (where does Man go? one place it goes is in the carton called Mortal along with forest ferns and humming birds); and third, as a stew to which predicates are added like ingredients asked for by a recipe, or as you might rub a goose with garlic (to the stock, man, add a cup of salesmanship). Sometimes, whether the subject is regarded as a coloring book or a sorting box depends on whether the predicate is an adjective or a noun. Only in the third case is any semantic change to either term permitted to occur.

Plato thought of his Forms as blending much the way, if I read him aright, colors are blended, and then splayed forth again, prismatically, as if white were indeed the fountain of all and not just the froth. Some prefer to look at language chemically. For them, sentences are like compounds composed of elements whose connections create different emergent qualities while allowing the original elements to retain their identities the way letters or even phonemes do. Hydrogen does not resemble a gas when performing the magic of water, though when it makes its escape from oxygens grasp, it is vaporous and volatile enough. The ultimate model for the sort of mixing we mean may be music. There each note retains its identity within the chord while sounding, with others, as one, and composing the onward rush of its narrative structure from recombinations, repetitions, and all the elements of pitch placement and dynamics.

But words are too duplicitous for such comparisons to run their course. Ford Madox Ford and Joseph Conrad agreed that writing in English, as contrasted with writing in French, was like throwing mud at a wall, but I think that most words are closets crammed with suits shirts socks and dresses, panties hats and gloves, and I see words dressing themselves in the wardrobes of others, first of all picking out this or that sense and then asking: will this skirt go with that blouse? does this tie match my shirt? Consider the little unassuming functionary, 'at" that pinpoints times and places. The sentence does not say what door our man is at, but the location need not be spoken: any man at a side, closet, kitchen, cellar door would not be an encyclopedia salesman. The content of the sentence establishes an unspoken occult context in which 'front' has a necessary though ghostly presence. This context is crowded. We know that this sentence belongs to the Great Depression; that the door in question is the front one; that someone outside or in the house (whose existence is also presumed) has seen the man and then identified him, probably for someone else, even a third man.

"The man at the door was an encyclopedia salesman" and "The dog at the door was a Doberman pincher" have the same grammatical form as "The flea on the dog was a nervous Nellie" Grammarians have found these shoes too loose to be comfortable, and have tried to tighten their forms by including other elements, such as insisting on an equivalent Depression-era placement and proper door selection for any other sentence said to have "the same form"

The syntactical spot filled by 'man' might better have employed the word 'fellow' because then we could profitably alliterate: "The fellow at the front door was an encyclopedia salesman". Unfortunately, 'fellow' is a bit demeaning, and we should have to decide whether we wanted to retain the initial anonymity of 'man' or sacrifice him to euphony and its unifications. Of course, if we have determined on 'shabby-suited' and dissed the poor wretch before he has even reached our door, then 'fellow' he must be. "The shabby-suited fellow at the front door was a Fuller Brush salesman" would be only a step from perfection.

The philosophical rule we are invoking for the careful writer here is Leibniz's Principle of Sufficient Reason. In fact the universe has insufficient reason; it is but an accident determined to happen, while human beings, who possess some, rarely use it; however, works of art are governed by the question "why this, rather than that?" Why 'fellow' rather than 'man,' why put 'shabby-suited' up front with 'man' rather than right before 'encyclopedia salesman" why 'weary' when a 'worn out' will do? One odd result of the application of this principle, first employed, to my knowledge, by Plato in the Timaeus, is that it flies in the face of form. Form makes possible reproduction; form insists upon substitutions, multiplication: there are many heroic couplets, many valid arguments of the type called Barbara, lots of recordings of Swan Lake, oodles of Van Gogh's sunflowers; but only one such painting, one such Taj Mahal, one such text called Tom Jones. Form cares only about loyalty to its regulations. Banal sonnets can be as perfect as Milton's, and great ones as imperfect as Hopkins's. For philosophers, paradoxes like this are paradise.

Such equivalence is essential to the understanding of the fourth formal element of the sentence: its sound, and therefore the meters and rhythms of its words, the effect of assonance, consonance, gutturals, glottals, sibilants, fricatives, dentals, inflections, and other ties of the tongue that are often studied under the heading of 'prosody,' including rhyme schemes and verse forms. Any sentence claiming a literary status should not be simply read or said but sung. Apart from genre rules and regulations little is usually done to connect these patterns to other organizing principles or to assess either how--or how much--they affect the meaning of their host. Unfortunately, no two people are likely to scan a line or a sentence in the same way, except by mischance. Moreover, there is always present the desire to squeeze the meter of a poetic passage into obedient feet as though they were those of Cinderella, and in the case of prose to ignore its rhythms altogether as if it were improper for it to seem musical, feminine and weak, when it is expected to be masculine, vigorous, and visual instead of auditory, seductive, and sensual. I made the immediately preceding sentence awkward to sharpen a point. The three properties (musical, feminine, and weak) set up the expectation of three others that would balance it (masculine, vigorous, and visual), but then I added another trio (auditory, seductive, and sensual) and hung it rather firmly on the line by repeating the alliteration pattern and near-rhyming 'sensual' with 'visual'; but now another group is called for in order to restore the equilibrium of the whole, since, hanging there in public view like undies taken from the wash, it threatens to bring the entire wardrobe into disrepute.

Sentences, especially extended ones, contain an unruly clutch of repetitive patterns and structural orders, some made for the concepts in advance of their choice the way syntax lies in wait for its vocabulary; some composed on the spot with the materialities of language; and these interact continuously with one another. Every repetition (a rhyme for instance) pulls the knot of its joint significance tighter, drawing meanings that are often many words apart into conjunction, modification, closure, or, as Hardy puts it, chime.

The connections rhymes make are mainly copulative, not in the sense we associate with the copula 'is; which wants to say something factual such as "I think therefore I am" or "In the Fall the leaves are brown"; but in the carnal sense implied by the grounds for their conjunction, since they often have no other relation to boast of and are not, in their referents, very much alike (are 'moon' 'spoon' 'loony' 'tune'?), but who are joined by the strength of their physical attraction. They are most frequently found in the company of the line break where they tend to enlarge that breech by creating a sense of closure, snapping the purse shut. Nevertheless, a poems sentences are folded back to a secondary beginning while the rhyme sends meaning in search of its twin.

In a masterfully awkward Thomas Hardy poem this very function of rhyme is the hidden subject. The scheme is insistent: a, a, a, a, b, b, a, a, a.

If It's Ever Spring Again

If it's ever spring again,
Spring again,
I shall go where went I when
Down the moor-cock splashed, and hen,
Seeing me not, amid their flounder,
Standing with my arm around her;
If it's ever spring again,
Spring again,
I shall go where went I then.

If it's ever summer-time,
With the hay crop at the prime,
And the cuckoos--two--in rhyme,
As they used to be, or seemed to,
We shall do as long we've dreamed to,
If it's ever summer-time,
With the hay, and bees achime. (4)
It's rarely observed how rhyme limits the poet's vocabulary, just as meter controls the choice of words and their order. Suppose the poet wrote "If there are other summer days ... summer days ... with the hay in its ripest phase ..." Indeed, the 'prime' 'time' anachronism is unfortunate, but in this poem it is essential. These lyrics, if written straight out as prose, would damp the drama of 'Downs' position, since everything in the line must splash upon the receiving hen--"Down the moor-cock splashed, and hen ..."--in their amorous entanglement indifferent to height, to water, or to the poet's presence. The poem tells us, perhaps inadvertently, that neither the girl, held in the poem by the poet's arm, nor the hen, tacked to the line by a barely adhesive 'and" are of any great significance, though in summer-time the relationship, according to the pair of cuckoos, appears to have equalized.

The great stroke in this poem is the so-called awkward line with its inverted word order--"I shall go where went I when"--partly because it makes getting where it's going difficult (the stumble) and pointless (as if only to reach the rhyme), and partly because the 'when' takes us to the edge of the poem where we might fall into an endless wondering of "what next?" if it weren't for the powerful upward pull of its rhyme with 'again" and the tightness of the trio 'where went when" In short, this line shouldn't have a strong closure, but it actually has a quite vigorous one, enough to help suspend 'hen' as if in midair. Indeed, 'down" does the plummeting for the moor-cock, as well as the hen, though her plunge is rather an afterthought, as I've suggested.

Lines that are wrenched suggest a powerful emotion has wrenched them, such as Hopkins's "My own heart let me more have pity on; let / Me live to my sad self hereafter kind"; but even the slightest displacement of customary acts or values will do it. For instance, "We once were in love, made love and kissed without a harmful history" puts kissing after love and last in an amorous past blessed by brevity. "We had children, married, and met" has a similar, though more emphatic, backwardness. In the Hardy poem, the double rhyme ('around her'), by returning us to its previous partner ('flounder'), compares the tumultuous behavior of the fowls with the socially more acceptable gesture of possessive affection.

Which brings us, perhaps with the relief of surprise, and the stimulus of suspicion, to the juncture of Rene Descartes with Samuel Beckett, with Beckett's riders and their bicycles, bicycles that are always breaking down, breakdowns that imperil the smooth machines we are supposed to be, minds riding around like ghosts (the critic's complaint was) steering only bits of wire, steel, and rubber wheels; for when the cuckoos chime they pop out of a chalet to do it at an appointed time; and so, very similarly does the poetic--even prosy--line go quark, because even one word, standing alone in one of Beckett's barren chambers, replicates the philosopher's problem: the interaction of marks with minds and minds with cries of coo-coo, of concepts riding about on meaningless and arbitrary sounds, something like Beckett's own chorus of frogs: "Krak! Krek! Krik! Krak!" for two unmelodious pages. (5) If meaning, for the philosopher, tends to fly off into abstraction like steam, for the poet it tends to condense the way moisture bathes a cold glass. Although Beckett, following Descartes's lead, lets the body be a machine, the odd thing is that nowadays it is the computer that tries to behave like a mind, although in the absence of a body it remains more mindless than a monkey.

In the esthetically interesting sentence, in any case, every materiality of language is employed to build a body for the meaning that will realize the union of thought and thing that paradise apparently forgot to promise us, and give consciousness the solid presence it constantly yearns for and will never quite realize. Over and over, we think that in the word we shall find the place where mind and matter meet. As Wallace Stevens writes:

The deepening need for words to express our thoughts and feelings
which, we are sure, are all the truth that we shall ever
experience, having no illusions, makes us listen to words when we
hear them, loving them and feeling them, makes us search the sound
of them, for a finality, a perfection, an unalterable vibration,
which it is only within the power of the acutest poet to give them.
Those of us ... who understand that words are thoughts and not only
our own thoughts but the thoughts of men and women ignorant of what
it is that they are thinking, must be conscious of this: that,
above everything else, poetry is words; and that words, above
everything else, are, in poetry, sounds. (6)
Stevens is constantly endeavoring to "find the vital music [that] formulates the words;' either rather blatantly, as if we were as dense-eared as a carving--"the miff-muff of water, the vocables / Of the wind, the glassily-sparkling particles / Of the mind"--or more smoothly, uniting a rhythm with a passage of thought, fashioning sweetmeat music to surround a phrase and its figure like cream poured over berries--

And so I mocked her in magnificent measure.
Or was it that I mocked myself alone?
I wish that I might be a thinking stone.
["Le Monocle de Mon Oncle"]
Here, as often in Stevens, music leads meaning by several meters, but who could resist the lure of a line like "The enormous gongs gave edges to their sounds" since it (cadence and image) suggests a sense that's at the same time secret, melodious, imperial, and sexy. The demands of sound and the impediments, apparently so arbitrary, that poets force themselves to hurdle, also compel them to explore the meanings they had in mind, and enable them to discover in what they thought, more than they thought.

"The shabby-suited fellow at the front door was a Fuller Brush salesman:' The rhythm of the sentence not only propels the sentence forward, it helps to organize its significant units--its phrases and clauses. The reader is made, not merely to see the sentence, but to sound it, because it is now a small mouthful. These sounds are usually not those of ordinary speech, but the spectral mimicry of things that are said to the mind, heard only by the mind, in the arena of the mind--in the subvocal consciousness that exists during reading.

This salesman's sentence seems quite sure of itself. It is direct; it is definite; it has no room for reservations. Yet without altering a word, its epistemological and ontological status can be radically altered. That is why I call these verbal instruments, transformative operators. For instance, we could lower the sentence's degree of assurance. "[I thought that] the fellow at the front door was a Fuller Brush salesman" "[I guessed that] the shabby-suited fellow at the front door was a Fuller Brush salesman, [but Gertrude was of quite a different opinion]." Amphibolously: "[Harold said that if] the shabby-suited fellow at the front door was a Fuller Brush salesman, [he was a monkey's uncle]" Or change tone and attitude: "[I certainly hoped] the shabby-suited fellow at the front door was a Fuller Brush salesman, [otherwise I've just now bought a cat's brush to comb my beard]." "The shabby-suited fellow at the front door was a Fuller Brush salesman, [but what if he were also the exhibitionist who has been frightening the neighborhood?]" More radically, we can put it in another realm of Being. "[While seated before the fire in my dressing gown reading Descartes's Meditations, I dreamed I heard a knocking. Then a cuckoo popped out of its clockhouse to announce that] the shabby-suited fellow at the front door was a Fuller Brush salesman. [I realized, when I was awakened by my desire to answer his knocking, that I had been dreaming inside a dream not altogether mine.]"

Layers of reality, degrees of uncertainty, ranges of attitude, levels of society, depth of contextual connection, modulations of tone, the ramifications and complexities of concept, and, above all, the vocabulary of the denoted world, must be taken into account, managed, and made the best of. As here, in this partially realized spindle diagram which displays the sound patterns around which the rhetorical center of these sentences turn:

It was the language of the house itself that spoke to him, writing
out for him with surpassing breadth and freedom the associations
and conceptions, the ideals and possibilities of the mistress.
Never, he felt sure, had he seen

so many things
so unanimously ugly--

operatively, ominously so cruel....

They constituted an order and abounded in rare material--precious
woods, metals, stuffs, stones.

He had never dreamed of anything

so fringed and scalloped,
so buttoned and corded,
drawn everywhere so tight and curled
everywhere so thick.
He had never dreamed of so much gilt and glass,
so much satin and plush,
so much rosewood and marble
and malachite.

But it was above all the solid forms, the wasted finish, the
misguided cost, the general attestation of morality and money, a
good conscience and a big balance. These things finally represented
for him a portentous negation of his own world of thought--of
which, for that matter, in presence of them, he became as for the
first time hopelessly aware. They revealed it to him by their
merciless difference. (7)
There is no dimension of the sentence that is not operative here, from the upper class Latinate word choice, the steady interruption of qualifying phrases, the carefully constructed climax, the shocked tone, both dismayed and outraged, the repetitive encircling of 'and' and 'so,' and the helpful disclosure, as if for use in this essay, of the language--both in its syntax and lexicon--of the world of human things: the single teacup that speaks of former wealth and dashed hopes; for Henry James is as much a master of that language as he is of the urbane style of verbal social exchange with which he was daily engaged. There is no more attentive prose than one of the master's sentences. The quality of what any one of them sees or feels is not only meticulously depicted, but placed in its proper sphere, and hefted for its proper weight, and seen through, realized and measured, as though each object were a little scene inside a glass globe, with snow that will obediently fall when its world is turned upside down.

I have suggested in other places that such sentences as these are containers of consciousness; a verbal consciousness of course, one built of symbols not sensations, yet one of perceptions all the same; perceptions followed by thoughts like tracking hounds, and infused throughout by the energies of memory and desire, the moods emotions foster, and the reach, through imagery and other juxtapositions, of imagination: six elements that I would substitute for Blair's selection (though our choices overlap and never negate); and also properties that the forms I have been discussing are designed to bring into being or enhance; above all, to unify, as our awareness is unified when full and sharp and contemplative, despite the fact this awareness is, at the same time, being urgently driven, like the scientific eye that searches greedily for clues to the nature of what it sees, yet, for just that reason, dare not miss, however microscopically tiny or cosmically distant, anything that might be significant. (End of this effort to parody Henry.)

The sentence must shelter its sense in sounds and arrange the furniture of that dwelling in an appealing pattern; but understanding how this is done is made difficult by the amorphous and variable term 'form' which, like so many words philosophers are fond of, is one moment firm and sharp and shining as a blade, while, in the next, helter-skelter in its applications, soon dull and tarnished and worn thin.

What tasks did it initially per-form?

When the early Greeks were attempting to understand the phenomena of change, it became the continuity--the fixed thing against whose immobility change could be recognized. In particular, how was one to understand where a living thing's living began, and where it's edges ended? Two kinds of definition of the term gradually emerged: one was dynamic and understood 'form" to refer to territorial rights like those demanded by birds or hunting animals (it has been said that wolves marked these limits by peeing on rocks and trees, a choice of meaning I find appealing and appropriate), or by tribes that posted warning signs, including the skulls of enemies, on the borders of their lands. The form of a thing was that area whose touch or intrusion drew a response and thus was evidence of a life. The other definition was static and seemed to have been based on the silhouette, hence the importance of the shadow something cast, and the visual outline of an entity--in short, its perceptible shape. The early draftsman's renderings of men and animals were probably outlines of life, while, for the dynamic definition of the term, the drawings they did were like maps. The suggestion of the dynamic was that the life force moved around and the pattern of its movements--its responses and its sallies--were its form. The experiences men had of instantaneous travel while drunk, in dreams or hallucinations, when mad or merely vividly imagining, were convincing. Meanwhile, the static sense of form said, in effect, that what had been an aggregate of elements--arms, elbows, eyelids, hair, and ears--soma--was now understood to belong to a single purposive whole--a gestalt--a unified entity.

Rigid form would find its examples in wax impressions, or in the lines of a letter or production of an icon, a geometrical shape or recognizable emblem, fossil imprint or healthy skeleton; it was expressed by a set of rules for making a sonnet, an entrance, a curtsy, or for eating soup; it was proper behavior in difficult circumstances, or excellence of execution under pressure; it defined the several steps of a ritual occasion--funeral, wedding, bar mitzvah, inauguration; it was equivalent to the lines on plans, even a level in school, a mold, benchmark, costume, a comely appearance, any abiding relations. At times it became very linear, rejecting color and tone, seizing on outline like a ... well ... grammar-school teacher.

Philosophers played their usual ping and pong with the poor word. For Plato (if we cleanse him of a few unfortunate moments of mysticism), Form represented a universal expressed as a mathematical formula, and a kind of perfect model, in contrast to the material copies that made up the world; while for Aristotle it was the realized essence of a thing, initially understood, as later it would be in Bacon, in terms of its physical, even bony structure; and then, returning to its dynamic origins, it became the behavior specific to a type of thing, its perfected habits of life--again, as differentiated from matter which was possibility and promise, not fulfillment; seed not fruit; expectation not arrival.

Well, what the hell, why not admit that the sentence is a suitcase packed with all of these, for James is obedient as a servant to the rules of grammar, and yet has his own manner or style of address. His sentences are made of words whose spelling is prescribed, and of letters whose shapes not only endeavor to be recognized, but hope to look lovely. These words are in English, a form of mostly Frenchified Germanic speech. His periods embody grammatical, musical, and rhetorical structures. They are continuously aware of the rank given words and their objects and actions in the social world: James would never write 'stink' but rather refer to something possibly odiferous; he would not say 'shat' in any company. Any of his sentences are immediately recognizable as such, and belong to rubrics innumerable; moreover, the various phrases, lengthy clauses, lists and repetitions they contain are given the order, correlation, and symmetry that any high style requires. That is to say, they are formed to a fair-thee-well.

Primarily, a form consists of terms in a significant relation; a relation of communal belonging that gives rise to a quality or condition--a meaning, an emotional effect--that could not be realized otherwise. We can, as we read, feel it occurring, but how does it happen? I suspect there is no single cause or simple explanation. Yet it is a quality felt by any responsive reader and constitutes the verbal consciousness that has been built by many different sorts of relations, and by the interconnections these systems have with one another--some dominate, others subordinate--but all in tune as the strings of a guitar or violin must be; so that any word or phrase or clause that finds itself in such company would have chosen to be there. Like love, it is a free and freedom-enhancing enslavement.

Perhaps this is metaphorical thinking at its worst, but it describes how writing feels when every word is fully active in the networks of its world. By 'active' I do not mean "in use" By 'active' I mean sensitive and alert to every possibility, even though many will, in this or that context, have to go unrealized. It means that avenues are open to be explored even when--this time--they are only viewed. A spare and simple-seeming 'style can be fully aware of what else might have served where it is serving, and a convoluted and apparently complex manner may be obtuse to every possibility but the flourish. If it is Mr. Micawber knocking at our door, we shall hear such posturing, but we shall be amused by it because it is not the author but his character that is thusly revealing himself.

We are familiar with texts that bear like a banner some trope that modifies or distinguishes them. Richardson's Clarissa pretends it is made of letters; Swift and Defoe both say their famous travelers kept a journal; Dickens insists that he has written David Copperfield's biography; Nabokov that the characters in his novel, The Defense, are pieces that move about on a chess board, while Cortazar claims that his Hopscotch is the game itself. Finnegans Wake is a dream. John Barth's Perseid is inscribed on a column.


Calvino's Invisible Cities follows a Dantesque path to hell that performs, like a dance step, a logarithmic spiral. One of my own novels is called The Tunnel, and has been dug to resemble one; a few others are mazes, or portraits, or pastorals, or symphonic movements, or fake confessions. Many of Beckett's paragraphs, even pages, resemble contrapuntal pieces, and poems are sometimes shaped to look like altars or angels' wings or leaves, or driving rain for Apollinaire, or pipes or lutes. Sentences cannot be quite so explicit, though I have depicted one of Mark Twain's diatribes against another river pilot ("He was a middle-aged long, slim, bony, smooth-shaven, horse-faced, ignorant, stingy, malicious, snarling, fault-finding, mote-magnifying tyrant") as a towboat pulling behind its noun a long row of barges bearing acidulous and pejorative adjectives.

A sentence can sometimes give its reader such a strong sense of its overall character that it provokes a flight of fancy, a metaphorical description: it's like a journey of discovery; it's like a coil of rope, a triumphal column; it's like a hallway or a chapel; it's like a spiral stair. To me, for instance, Sir Thomas Browne's triplet--"Grave-stones tell truth scarce forty years. Generations pass while some trees stand, and old families last not three oaks"--with its relentlessly stressed syllables (seven strong to one weak in the first row, seven to two in the second course, and six to one in the last) resembles a wall. I can even locate spots (the weak stresses) where its stones have crumbled. Families come to pieces the way the word does.


Henry James builds a stairway with 'old' as a riser in a sentence from The Golden Bowl, punning in addition on the word 'decent' while depicting the decline of the West's several ages, and by deftly returning our attention to the sentence's beginnings--one step forward, one-half back--with a marvelous row of Os, thereby obtaining a spiral effect: "Of decent old gold, old silver, old bronze, of old chased and jeweled artistry, were the objects that, successively produced, had ended by numerously dotting the counter ..."


Nor dare I omit James Joyce's use of the same sound in his magnificent conclusion to Finnegans Wake, as the waters of the river Liffey finally make their return to the sea, and Joyce, too, completes his cycle of life.

Spindle Diagram--Sound and Rhythm Pattern (From James Joyce, Finnegans Wake, conclusion)

And it's old
and old
it's sad
and old
it's sad
and weary

[that] I go back to you,
my cold father,
my cold mad feary father,

till the near sight
of the mere size of him,

the moyles
and moyles of it,


makes me seasilt

and I rush,
my only, into your arms.
Finally, here is an example of how Stanley Elkin gives his subject matter a form admirably suited to it by imitating the actions of an elevator, and beginning at the parking garage level, B2.

The Elevator
(From Stanley Elkin, The Franchiser)

in the dark sand. 10
the dark cigarette butts 9

the dark silky stripes on the benches outside the
elevators 8
of each dark floor, 7
pressed against the dark walls 6
on the dark halved tables 5
in their dark vases 4
and dark flowers 3
the dark lamps 2
the darkened mezzanine and black ballrooms,
through darkness, imagining, though it was day, L
and sensed himself sucked up B1
[] He pressed the button B2
This is our floor. Time to get off at encyclopedias, brushes, and shabby suits.


(1) Harold Harding, ed., Lecture on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres (1783) (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois Press, 1966), 209.

(2) New York: Grove Press, 1959, 209-211.

(3) Quoted in Allen Shawn's Arnold Schoenberg's Journey (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2002), 184.

(4) Thomas Hardy, Late Lyrics and Earlier (London: Macmillan, 1922), 67.

(5) Watt, 137-8.

(6) "The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words," in The Necessary Angel, Collected Poetry and Prose (New York: The Library of America, 1996), 662-3.

(7) The Wings of the Dove, also quoted by J. I. M. Stewart in Eight Modern Writers (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963), 109.

Source Citation:Gass, William H. "The esthetic structure of the sentence.(discussion on sentence formation and grammar)." The Review of Contemporary Fiction 28.3 (Fall 2008): 9(31). Academic OneFile. Gale. BROWARD COUNTY LIBRARY. 28 July 2009
Gale Document Number:A190462828

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Len Wilson

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